17 January 2005

Indigenous Summit

Tribes Gather to Talk Indigenous Rights 
    By Leslie Hoffman
    Saturday 15 January 2005
Indian tribes gather to help guide governments in their dealings with indigenous people.
    Carlos Chex knows well the struggle of indigenous tribes to control their land, resources and destiny a battle his fellow Mayans in Guatemala have fought for years. 
    "Unfortunately, up to now, there have been few advances," Chex, a lawyer, said in Spanish. 
    Chex hopes a three-day gathering of tribal representatives from across the Western Hemisphere may begin to change that, and help guide governments in their dealings with indigenous people. 
    The meeting, which was held on the Navajo Nation, ended Thursday. The proposals will be presented next month in Washington, where the Organization of American States holds its next round of negotiations on a draft declaration on the rights of indigenous people. 
    "We're trying to get countries to change the way they treat Indian people and other indigenous people," said Robert Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center in Helena, Mont., and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. "We're trying to make this new international law so that it will push ... countries to do better." 
    Tribal representatives have worked for years to incorporate their perspectives into the declaration, which was first released for public comment in 1995. They hope for adoption by the 34 member countries of the OAS within the next two to three years. 
    Tribes are also participating in the United Nations' effort to draft a global declaration. 
    The discussions this week focused on the heart of indigenous concerns from the recognition of the individual rights of indigenous people to their collective rights to land and resources. 
    Joining Navajo leaders from the United States were representatives of the Blackfeet Indian Tribe in Montana and members of the Iroquois Confederacy from the Northeast, among others. Tribal representatives from Canada, Mexico, Panama, Nicaragua, Brazil and Argentina also attended. 
    "Indigenous people are being dealt with as serious actors, effective actors, in the world community," Coulter said. 
    Yet much complicated work lays ahead, said Lottie Cunningham, a Miskito Indian and attorney for the Center for Justice and Human Rights of the Atlantic Coast in Nicaragua. She said states historically have lacked understanding of indigenous rights. 
    Putting into "one voice" the various indigenous perspectives on core issues such as self-determination also is a challenge, said Navajo Nation Council delegate Rex Lee Jim of Rock Point, Ariz. 
    For South American tribes, self-determination can mean guaranteeing the right to participate in national systems. "We already have that, so for us it means having our own government," Jim said. 
    Self-determination among Navajos and other North American tribes often involves questions of jurisdictional control over tribal issues and those who travel across tribal lands, he said. 
    What unites all the tribes was a main agenda item land, said Costa Rican indigenous leader Jose Carlos Morales. "A community without land dies; it disappears," he said in Spanish. 
    There is also the question of history when discussing indigenous rights to land and resources since many modern tribal reservations are not on their tribes' traditional land because of government relocation. 
    "We have to talk about the past, present and future," said Navajo Nation Council delegate Ervin Keeswood Sr. of Hogback, N.M.


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